Iles Inlet Extensions and Corkscrew Chamber in Agen Allwedd
Saturday, 24 February 2007
What was to have been an easy weekend’s caving, taking my niece and brother-in-law caving for the first time, turned into a bit more of an epic when my family couldn’t make the weekend. We were staying at a hut which Paul is a trustee of, with a mixed group of cavers and mountain bikers from West Sussex and some scouts from somewhere near Northampton. Paul fancied a trip to see the Courtesan formation which was discovered last year and featured on the cover of a recent descent, so I was easily talked into a photography trip. Paul had obtained an Aggy key, but then asked me if I knew the route in the cave. Unfortunately I had only been in Aggy once, on a quick trip to the end of Main Passage and back. I had no idea where in the cave the new formations were, apart from the localised survey published in the Descent article. Then we found some excellent information on the internet at http://willerup.com/oydc/ (a site about the ongoing Aggy digs). By the time the weekend arrived, Paul had obtained an A3 line survey of Aggy. This gave just enough detail to show whereabouts in the cave we were trying to reach. Luckily he had also managed to get in touch with one of the diggers by telephone, and got a verbal description of the route which he had written down in his unique cryptic shorthand. So armed with all this plus a photocopy of the guidebook description for the cave, we set off.
Our research on the internet had led us to believe that a fit party who knew the way could get there in 2.5 hours. So we planned on about 4 hours to reach the formations, a couple of hours photography and then about 3 hours out at most. Based on this we took two camera bags, so I could get some pictures with my kit which I am well practised with, but also give Paul some lessons with his new digital SLR which had not been underground before. We got through the entrance series easily enough, and romped along main passage to the start of the Southern Streamway. This was described as stooping, crawling and climbing over boulders with a squeeze or two. Nothing too difficult, but a bit tedious. The description from the guidebook mentioned inlets after around 100m and another 400m. We passed these and continued on expecting to reach waterfall chamber before too long. After some considerable time crawling onwards beyond the second inlet, I turned over the description and read the end of the paragraph after the mention of waterfall chamber. This was when I noticed the comment that the entire Southern Streamway was 1600m long, and our exit point from the streamway was not far from the end of it!
Eventually we reached waterfall chamber, where a knotted ropes aids the climb down the waterfall. The guidebook described the point where we should leave the streamway as about 100m beyond this point. Paul’s shorthand notes mentioned 10min of sideways walking. We knew that we should be looking for climb up into a wider passage above the stream. Unfortunately I did not have a watch, so it was hard to estimate either 100m or 10min of sideways walking. When we saw an obvious wider development in the passage above, we climbed up and found a well trodden traverse continuing downstream. We traversed a fair distance with some awkward steps before eventually the traverse descended back to the stream! We has not noticed any hands and knees crawl, which the description mentioned, or a rope which Paul’s notes mentioned. So we had another good look back along the traverse before eventually concluding we must have not gone far enough in the stream. So we carried on downstream, and a little further along we came to a really obvious rope up and traverse leading into a passage which led to a crawl. Paul’s notes read something like ‘rope up passage T left right old dig aven tape left priory road left hole spoil heap wiggly digs pretties too far back 10 yds left rift’. Amazingly we managed to follow these without too much difficultly and found the way through into Priory Road passage, which was much longer than we expected. But we all reached the large spoil heap at the start of the Iles Inlet digs.
Time was really getting on by this stage. We had already been underground for 5 hours, and Emma was getting very tired having not done nearly as much caving before as the rest of us. So we made an action plan that Paul, Caroline and I would go ahead to start photographing the formations, leaving Emma and Badger to catch us up there. Then they could start heading out while we finished the photography and we would catch them up on the way back. Then Paul and Caroline could race on ahead to get out in time to prevent a call out as we expected to exceed our 10 hours, and I would continue out with Badger and Emma to make sure we all got out OK at a manageable pace. As soon as this was agreed Paul and Caroline shot off into the Iles Inlet passage. I headed in after them but they were nowhere to be seen, and it quickly dawned on me what a heroic digging effort this extension had been. I went through several flat out crawling U-bend digs with hands and knees crawling in between them. Then I came to a small 90deg bend which I was really uncomfortable with, having rather long legs. Doubts raced through my mind as to whether I had missed a turning and was going the right way? Would my legs get round that bend in a flat out crawl on my side? Would the bag get stuck? What was beyond the bend which I could not see around without forcing my head into the squeeze?
I decided the best plan was to go feet first, as that way I could find out if my legs would get round the bend, and if not I could extract myself more easily. If I did fit then I could drag my bag through after me without fear it would get tangled up with me. So I reversed into the bend, and managed to squeeze my legs round, then do a half roll to allow my body to bend at the waist around the corner. I was through, heart pounding, and pulled my bag through. I could just about sit up in the passage beyond and turn round to see where I was going. I was horrified to see that the passage went into an even worse double bend after about 3m! Now I was really fighting to keep myself calm. Stuck between two awkward bend squeezes in a passage barely big enough for me to turn around in. I tried to stick my head into the next bend to see beyond, but could not get in far enough to see round the second bend before I started to panic and had to reverse out again. I was now worried that Badger would be getting stuck in the passage behind me, blocking my exit. I had to sit down and try to calm myself down. I decided I had to at least attempt this second double bend squeeze, and that it would have to be feet first again. So I started lying on my back, then rolled onto my left side so that my legs bent at the knee around the second bend, while my body bent at the waist around the first bend. Then I had to roll over onto my right side once my legs were round the second bend so that my upper body could get around this one. There turned out to be just enough room to do this, and I shoved myself feet first out of the constriction. I grabbed my bag and dragged it out of the bends. I wondered what more lay in store!
The next bit of passage had some more flat out narrow squeezes, but these were all in a straight line, and I had no trouble getting through. Then I met Paul, to my immense relief, and released all my pent up fear in a big rant about it all! We then went to catch up with Caroline who was a little further up the passage. We decided we needed to check on Badger and Emma, so Caroline agreed to go back and find them as she had no problem with the squeezes, while Paul and I set up the camera gear. Caroline found Badger struggling through the squeezes before the bends that had given my so much grief, and Emma was also finding it a bit too much after a long exhausting trip to get to this point. On the advice of what lay ahead, they started to make their way back to the entrance, and Caroline returned to help up take some pictures.
Round a few more corners the passage opened up into a tall rift and we walked under some beautiful urchin formations high in the roof. More lay beyond and great care was needed to get past formations on the floor and hanging from the ceiling without touching them. Beyond this the roof comes down again, with fantastic clusters of helictites and urchins right in front of your face. We decided to photograph these first, working as fast as possible without messing up the pictures. Happy with my pictures of these formations, we went to look for the squeeze into Corkscrew Chamber. This turned out to be no problem, and much shorter than I expected. The squeeze is snug, but in a straight line so no problem for my legs. It goes up at a 45deg angle and you exit into a chamber right next to the incredible Courtesan formation. This consists of a pure white helictite encrusted stalactite about 1.5m long hanging above a smooth cream coloured stalagmite on the floor. Beyond this in the chamber are even more amazing urchins and the most fragile looking helictites bushes growing from the ceiling, which are right at eye level. Great care had to be taken to get close up photographs of these without touching anything. Caroline and Paul had the dual roles of holding flashes and watching me very carefully to keep me clear of anything delicate while I peered at my camera screen.
The photography done as best we could in a short amount of time (still totalling 1.5 hours from first to last photo!) we set off out. Thankfully the squeezes and bends caused me no real problems going head first in this direction. The return to the surface was much faster, us knowing the way and being a smaller group. It still took us most of the way up the Southern Streamway to catch up with Emma and Badger. I stayed with them, thankful to be able to slow down a bit while Caroline and Paul pushed on to get out before we exceeded our call out time. We eventually reached the surface by around 11pm to a wet and windy night after around 10.5 hours underground. The walk back to the cars parked outside the Chelsea hut seemed to take forever. But as we got there we were immediately welcomed inside by some of their club members to change in the warm and dry, and handed hot drinks! A most friendly club, and really appreciated by us. Paul and Caroline had been there a while, and had arranged for hot food to be waiting for us back at our hut about an hours drive away. We got back there about 12:30am to find huge plates of lasagne and the biggest salad I have ever seen. This is how caving should be done!